Slicing Up Local Media

Can any one website capture the full flow of information in a city? From covering local government to civic events, concert reviews to investigative reports? In Boulder, one website is trying to do just that.

SlicesofBoulder.com is a fitting name for a project that exists at the intersection of so many key themes and questions about the future of journalism. The site is at once a response to new news and media consumption and sharing habits, and the growing concern about how we will meet the information needs of our democracy in the digital age. It is an active collaboration between tech entrepreneurs and a journalism school, and is trying to develop a new kind of curation and aggregation that might eventual pay dividends to local creators. The confluence of these trends in one project is reason enough to take a closer look at SlicesofBoulder.com.

Steve Outing, who directs the UC Boulder Digital Media Test Kitchen and oversees SlicesofBoulder.com, described it this way: “It’s curation, and aggregation, and intelligent semantic filtering and processing, and text mining, and personalization offered down to a micro level.” If it works, Outing believes the system can begin to help “to de-fragment the community news and information flow and conversation that continues to fragment more and more.”

The project is perhaps one of the best examples of what Jay Rosen has called the “100 percent solution.” Rosen writes, “It starts with a vision: what if we could cover all of it? When you try to act on that vision, you invariably run into problems. And it’s sweating those problems that leads to innovation, or at least to new knowledge.” The team behind SlicesofBoulder.com has set out to be the comprehensive hub of news and information for Boulder, Colorado. That spirit of open inquiry and innovation that Rosen points to clearly animates the SlicesOfBoulder experiment.

I interviewed Steve Outing about the significance of this experiment and what it can teach newsrooms and consumers about covering and curating a local community. The full interview is below, but here are a few highlights:

On the potential for creating a powerful curation and aggregation system:

Boulder is on the cusp of having a serious news and citizen-awareness problem. I don’t think that you can read the Daily Camera [Boulder’s major daily newspaper], its website, iPhone app, or receive its daily headlines via email and be well-informed about what’s happening throughout the community. I recognized that once SlicesofBoulder.com was up and running in beta, when the system led me to significant news and information on a daily basis that I was unaware of — because it was being published by a smattering of websites and blogs and neighborhood groups, and on and on.

On beating Google News by better serving a focused community:

You can look at what we’ve done at a single-community level as akin to applying Google News to a small geographic area and greatly expanding the breadth of sources included. I’ve looked at many other news aggregators that want to provide in-depth news for many communities, but none go anywhere as deep as we do with SlicesofBoulder.com. That’s because to create this up front, our team created a custom taxonomy of Boulder and surrounding towns; then researched and found all the relevant digital sources covering the area; then created phrases for the Eqentia system to watch for during its crawls of hundreds of local feeds. A lot of human work up front is required before the technology can take over to manage the daily flow and organization of this huge flow of content.

On making sense of information overflow:

The ‘Slices’ part of the site name imparts the idea that a local resident can carve out a news-and-information flow about a topic or issue that’s of personal interest. So if you’re interested in Boulder City Council doings, you can get links to a flow of coverage and announcements and opinions from many sources about that. Or you can refine tracking of city council and just view links to content that covers the intersection of city council and environmental issues. You can follow content that’s about your neighborhood. Or follow everything that’s being written about the mayor of Boulder, or the chancellor of CU-Boulder.

On the business model:

I’m also very keen on figuring out how to put a financial layer on top of the site, such that SlicesofBoulder.com can earn money (from advertising and other methods) and solicit donations from users, then distribute that money to the quality local sources that we link to (minus the minimal amount of money needed to sustain the site). I would like to be able to demonstrate a model where a news aggregator can ‘pay back’ the content creators and publishers to which they’re linking. Accomplishing this will depend on our future success attracting foundation money to support the development, of course. [In a follow up email Steve wrote: “In order to determine which sources are high quality and deserve revenue share, there will be user ratings of sources on Slices of Boulder (at some future point).”]

On the university as a site for journalism R&D:

One of my main missions as director of the Digital Media Test Kitchen is to identify emerging technologies that could have an impact or help solve problems in journalism and for the news industry; I’m always on the lookout for what’s coming next, and to see if there’s a news application of a new technology possible. The Slices project is less interdisciplinary than some other Test Kitchen projects, where we work with others on campus, especially Business and Computer Science. But it is an example — typical of our projects — of bringing emerging-technology entrepreneurs into the university environment to break some new ground.

On the lessons SlicesOfBoulder can teach community-minded newsrooms:

If local news organizations are to survive and be relevant, they must learn to curate and aggregate links to the best local content being produced online for their communities. If they don’t take this on, someone else will. Every community has a ‘long tail,’ and the only way for a traditional local news provider to serve the people interested in local long-tail topics and issues is to go outside of the news company’s holdings. Linking via curation/aggregation is the simplest way, but perhaps there are other opportunities that might include revenue sharing with the independent long-tail publishers and content creators. ‘News’ need not be narrowly defined to how we defined it in the past. That, for example, a Police Department tweet about an apprehension in progress that’s blocking traffic is useful ‘news.’ News or information that matters to me may be mundane and irrelevant to you, which just means that news providers should deliver it or make it accessible to me and not to you.

Read on for the full interview, including Steve Outing’s goals for the project and how he measures success, as well as the lessons SlicesofBoulder.com suggest for journalism students, and more.

1) Before we talk about SlicesOfBoulder, I want to talk a little bit about Boulder itself. How would you describe the news and information ecosystem in Boulder? What’s the mix of journalism models at work and how are local people being served when it comes to the news and issues that are most important to the community?

Boulder has a population of around 100,000, including the 29,000-student Boulder campus of the University of Colorado. Because Boulder is a 30-minute drive from Denver, the news eco-system is not huge here. We have one dominant daily newspaper, the Daily Camera [Boulder’s major daily newspaper], which is owned by MediaNews Group — which also owns the Denver Post (also distributed in print in Boulder). The Camera has in recent years lost editorial staff and capacity to cover the city and region as well as in the past. It’s suffered just as most other newspapers have, leaving holes for others to fill in terms of coverage.

Sticking to old media for now, there’s a public radio station, KGNU, that offers some local news; an alternative weekly, the Boulder Weekly; a commercial newspaper aimed at the CU audience (Colorado Daily); a student-run news website (CUIndependent.com) that no longer has a print edition; and a weekly local-business newspaper. Web presences for each of those vary in terms of quality and innovation.

Due to the decline in local coverage and perceived decline in news quality, some alternative online media cropped up, such as BoulderReporter.com, an alternative news site that’s been struggling. There’s also The Blue Line (http://www.boulderblueline.org/), a local news and opinion website created by a group of Boulder’s “old guard” who became concerned that voters weren’t being adequately informed by the mix of declining old media and the chaotic and often-inaccurate information found on social networks; Blue Line’s model seems like a mimic of the Huffington Post on a local level.

Otherwise, like in most digitally savvy and well-educated communities, there are lots of people using blogs, Twitter, etc. to publish news, information, and opinion about the local scene or specific niches. Boulder institutions, from government agencies, to scientific institutes, to education entities, to schools, etc., have adapted to communicating directly to the population using the Internet. A typical example: Twitter feeds by the police department, fire department, and school district.

We do not have as much new Internet news media as, say, a Seattle where there’s been strong growth in neighborhood news sites as a result of the loss of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. While the Daily Camera has declined, it’s still doing a decent job overall and thus we haven’t seen a huge increase in new news entities popping up.

Boulder does benefit from being covered by several Denver-based news entities, of course: several Denver TV stations; the Denver Post, of course; Colorado Independent (politics and public-affairs focus); and Huffington Post’s Denver website which covers Denver-Boulder.

2) Given that, what do you see as the role of SlicesOfBoulder? What’s its unique contribution to the region and how did the state of news locally guide your development of the site?

Boulder is on the cusp of having a serious news and citizen-awareness problem. I don’t think that you can read the Daily Camera, its website, iPhone app, or receive its daily headlines via e-mail and be well informed about what’s happening throughout the community. I recognized that once SlicesofBoulder.com was up and running in beta, when the system led me to significant news and information on a daily basis that I was unaware of — because it was being published by a smattering of websites and blogs and neighborhood groups, and on and on.

This isn’t unique to Boulder, of course. In nearly every community that’s not tiny, pertinent and important information and news that should be known by all residents is scattered among many media and institutional sources. Rounding it all up into one convenient place is not possible in most communities, and wasn’t possible in Boulder until we debuted SlicesofBoulder.com. I blame that in part on traditional news media being unwilling to take curation and aggregation of other news sources seriously — i.e., to link to all the many valuable services in their communities. They in large part want their online users to pay attention to what they produce, and so their audience is left to surf elsewhere on the web to find more. (For example, if the Washington Post or Salon.com or Time Magazine publishes a story about Boulder or an issue here, those will automatically turn up as links on SlicesofBoulder.com. But local media outlets probably won’t link to such a story.)

But more important is the local news and information that gets overlooked by most Boulder residents. The core idea behind SlicesofBoulder.com was to dive really deep into the content flow that is coming from hundreds of local sources — not just “news” sources but also streams of local community information (such as a note or tweet from the Open Space Department, “The Dowdy Draw Trail is closed today and tomorrow due to snail migration”) that is not found in traditional local media.

The “Slices” part of the site name imparts the idea that a local resident can carve out a news-and-information flow about a topic or issue that’s of personal interest. So if you’re interested in Boulder City Council doings, you can get links to a flow of coverage and announcements and opinions from many sources about that. Or you can refine tracking of City Council and just view links to content that covers the intersection of City Council and environmental issues. You can follow content that’s about your neighborhood. Or follow everything that’s being written about the mayor of Boulder, or the chancellor of CU-Boulder.

The site’s contribution to the area is two-fold:

  1. It aims to better inform the community as a whole, and specifically to better inform community members who want or need to closely watch specific local issues or topics.
  2. It sends readers to local news and information sources that readers previously were not aware of — and thus supports growth in new media entities appearing on the Boulder scene, as well as driving more traffic to the websites of old-media local news outlets.

3) What kind of feedback have you gotten from the local community?

Frankly, we have not done much marketing of the site yet. I’m focused on a couple future components of the project: visualizing the state of the current Boulder digital media-sphere and then beginning to track how it evolves over times; and adding a content-rating and financial layer to the site in order to support the sites we link to and thus encourage more quality local journalism. An improved UI is coming soon thanks to our partnership with Eqentia.com, whose technology SlicesofBoulder.com was built on.

Of the feedback we’ve received:

  • CU journalism students and professors quickly discovered the value of it in terms of discovering new local story ideas, for research, and for closely following specific issues, topics, institutions, and people. They seem to like what it can do for them.
  • I’m hearing positive things from community members who are actively engaged in the community, because they are the type of people who want to know more than what a single daily newspaper or local radio news program can give them on the things they care about locally.

I’ve also heard some criticism of the site as being “informational overload” at first look. Of course, the intent is actually the opposite, since it enables a user to hone in on what’s important to him or her and then drill deep just on that. I think that’s a UI issue and we’ll work on that, to make it more obvious how to get a flow of only what you want and to create a personalized page with your topics.

4) Related to that, how do you measure success? What’s traffic to the site been like and is that even a good measurement?

It’s way too early to measure success. But I have long-term goals that should be measurable:

  1. Increasing readership to a wide variety of local news and information sources, and introducing new sources as they appear to the Boulder community and help them build an audience (assuming, of course, that they produce quality local content).
  2. Longer term, I hope to see the Slices of Boulder site actually offer financial support to the best local news creators and thus encourage more local, quality journalism to make up for the declines seen by traditional news organizations. That’s something still to be figured out, of course.

5) If we take a step away from Boulder and look at the place of SlicesOfBoulder in the larger future of news ecosystem of new sites and experiments, what is the significance of your project? How do you define it – is it curation or aggregation or something else entirely?

It’s curation, and aggregation, and intelligent semantic filtering and processing, and text mining, and personalization offered down to a micro level.

You can look at what we’ve done at a single-community level as akin to applying Google News to a small geographic area and greatly expanding the breadth of sources included. Google News hand selects news sites and blogs that meet its criteria, and offers a way for its users to to view categories and subcategories of news: mid-term election, hurricanes, Oprah Winfrey, sports, technology, etc. But the sources of links to those topics are limited in scope. Google News can give you Boulder News, but it pulls from a shallow well of sources. (http://news.google.com/news/section?pz=1&cf=all&geo=80303&ict=ln)

I’ve looked at many other news aggregators that want to provide in-depth news for many communities, but none go anywhere as deep as we do with SlicesofBoulder.com. That’s because to create this, up front our team (journalism instructor Sandra Fish and master’s student Jenny Dean, working over the summer) created a custom taxonomy of Boulder and surrounding towns; then researched and found all the relevant digital sources covering the area; then created phrases for the Eqentia system to watch for during its crawls of hundreds of local sources so that discovered content is dropped in the right buckets (what the Eqentia folks call ” Connections”). A lot of human work up front is required before the technology can take over to manage the daily flow and organization of this huge flow of content.

To my mind, the reason to do this on a city level is to attempt to defragment the community news and information flow and conversation that continues to fragment more and more.

Further, I’ve wished for a long time for a service that would give me everything that I wanted — from the micro level of stuff happening in my neighborhood (of high interest to me but that’s far too mundane to make the local newspaper) and with my friends, all the way up to important news that everyone in the community should know about. And I’ve felt that social media is a part of the news stream that is mostly ignored by traditional news media, so I’ve wanted relevant pieces of my social-media content stream to be included in this. SlicesofBoulder.com represents some of that vision.

6) One of the powerful aspects of SlicesOfBoulder is the diverse ways your can slice and dice the data to pull up different threads, focus in on key issues, or dive into particular local conversations happening through the media. How do you see SlicesOfBoulder helping people engage with local media in new ways? How does SlicesOfBoulder help overcome information overload and add context?

  1. It gives local residents tools to dig deeper and be more informed about a local topic because of the site’s multi-source nature, thus giving them knowledge to refute false claims and errors by other media or organizations or individuals.
  2. Not only will it help journalists and researchers discover new story ideas, but it also will alert local citizens to issues that they might miss or not fully understand when relying on a single old-media news provider.
  3. It will expose major local issues that bubble up outside of mainstream-media coverage, thus allowing SlicesofBoulder users to prod journalists to pay attention to them.
  4. It will give citizens easier access to the information output of government and other institutions, so that more local eyes are watching what those entities are doing and can mobilize when necessary, and more people can participate in public processes because more of them know about issues that will affect them.
  5. On information overload, the flow of news and information even in a medium-size town like Boulder will continue to grow beyond our capabilities to keep up. Other than President Obama, the rest of us tend to be specialists, so the only way any of us can deal with information overload, I believe, is to find the best tools to inform us on the topics and issues that we are interested in and/or possess expertise. The SlicesofBoulder project aims to provide tools to keep people best informed on the number of local topics that they choose to focus on.

7) You have described this as version 1.0 – what’s next?

As a university project, the research phase is next. As I mentioned earlier, visualizing and describing the Boulder digital media-scape as it exists in 2010, and then setting up a system to track changes over time. I’m keen to see what happens in the next year or two. Will traditional news sources continue to decline in coverage? We might measure that in terms of number of stories and/or words published, and then compare that to new and alternative local digital news providers and their output. Can we identify areas of coverage where traditional media have reduced coverage, and find other digital media filling in the gap? Can we identify topics or issues that no one is covering adequately, thus identifying opportunities for yet-to-emerge local news providers? Are there topics or issues where new news providers are doing a better, deeper level of coverage than old-media news entities?

And a piece of this that I’m also very keen on is figuring out how to put a financial layer on top of the site, such that SlicesofBoulder.com can earn money (from advertising and other methods) and solicit donations from users, then distribute that money to the quality local sources that we link to (minus the minimal amount of money needed to sustain the site). Accomplishing this will depend on our future success attracting foundation money to support the development, of course.

This is where working in an academic environment is fun: I would like to be able to demonstrate a model where a news aggregator can “pay back” the content creators and publishers to which they’re linking. There’s no legal reason why Topix.net or Google News or any other web news aggregator needs to do this — they’re operating within fair use and providing the linked-to sites with a service (additional traffic) — but as news aggregators become the news entry point for more and more people, I think that the aggregators have an opportunity to help themselves by helping the publishers. We all know how difficult it is to survive financially as an online news or content publisher, or a blogger, etc. It’s in a news aggregator’s self-interest to help make sure that online content providers of quality don’t die, so using their technology and sites to funnel money to the best of the content sites they link to benefits themselves and the audience. The specifics haven’t been documented yet, but in general I hope that we can show how news aggregators can be good guys in terms of being responsible for more quality news content being created.

8) In my mind, part of the story of SlicesOfBoulder is how it was developed and conceived of. Can you tell me a little more about the interdisciplinary partnership at UC Boulder that sparked this project and the work with software developer Eqentia?

One of my main missions as director of the Digital Media Test Kitchen is to identify emerging technologies that could have an impact or help solve problems in journalism and for the news industry; I’m always on the lookout for what’s coming next, and to see if there’s a news application of a new technology possible (perhaps that the technology developer hasn’t considered, or understands but is focused on other markets because they represent greater money potential). If I remember correctly, William Mougayar, Eqentia CEO and founder, pinged me suggesting I look at Eqentia.com and asked if I had any feedback. Eqentia had initially focused on vertical knowledge portals for the enterprise market, and my first reaction was, “Could we apply this to a city?” William hadn’t considered the geographic application of Eqentia’s technology to be a lucrative direction, but he suggested we partner and give it a try using the city of Boulder as the guinea pig. William was gracious enough to spend a couple days in Boulder showing us how to use his technology, then Sandra Fish and Jenny Dean set out to create a taxonomy for Boulder and surrounding area, and collect RSS feed URLs for all the relevant sources they could find pertinent to Boulder.

The Slices project is less interdisciplinary than some other Test Kitchen projects, where we work with others on campus, especially Business and Computer Science. But it is an example — typical of our projects — of bringing emerging-technology entrepreneurs into the university environment to break some new ground.

9) This project was very much a practical experiment in new journalism tools, but also an academic project for the students involved. As a journalist, what are the top five lessons you have learned working on this project, that might help other newsrooms thinking about trying to become the information hubs of their communities?

  1. Even if old news organizations die, or decline to the point of irrelevancy, a new wave of digital publishers and news people will rise to deal with the needs left unfilled.
  2. If local news organizations are to survive and be relevant, they must learn to curate and aggregate links to the best local content being produced online for their communities. If they don’t take this on, someone else will.
  3. Every community has a “long tail,” and the only way for a traditional local news provider to serve the people interested in local long-tail topics and issues is to go outside of the news company’s holdings. Linking via curation/aggregation is the simplest way, but perhaps there are other opportunities that might include revenue sharing with the independent long-tail publishers and content creators.
  4. That “news” need not be narrowly defined to how we defined it in the past. That, for example, a Police Department tweet about a apprehension in progress that’s blocking traffic is useful “news” and not just a PD “press release.”
  5. That news or information that matters to me may be mundane and irrelevant to you, which just means that news providers should deliver it or make it accessible to me and not to you.

10) Similarly, what are the top five lessons you think your journalism students learned?

  1. That the local digital media-sphere has grown tremendously in recent years and features a wide variety of news and information available freely online, and that it’s growing in reaction to declines by old media institutions.
  2. That the low cost of publishing and becoming a “local news provider” online sometimes brings out wackos, who try to put themselves across as serious.
  3. That finding and cataloging all the news and information sources in a city of 100,000 is a time-consuming task that requires human judgment — and that no algorithm and web spider could accomplish this with any semblance of quality.
  4. That each community is different, with different common interests and issues — and thus the importance of creating and refining a unique taxonomy that reflects the community is necessary for curation and aggregation to be useful to residents. This must be done by people who know the community, not outsiders who can’t know a city’s unique characteristics and culture.
  5. That information overload is an issue to be reckoned with, and will continue to be in the future, but that technology and smart design can deal with the problem to some degree.

The Digital Media Test Kitchen can be found at http://testkitchen.colorado.edu … Test Kitchen director Steve Outing can be reached at steve.outing@colorado.edu.

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One thought on “Slicing Up Local Media

  1. Thanks Steve and Josh for an in-depth review of Slices of Boulder.
    Slight correction: Eqentia is not a software developer. We’re a product company. Hyper-local news is one of the several use cases we enable. We can take the Slices of Boulder example and apply that model to any city, community, topic, subject, etc. A number of additional showcases are available from our website http://www.eqentia.com

    William Mougayar
    Founder & CEO
    Eqentia

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